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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 28 January 2021

Private internet messaging is a two-way street

WhatsApp's new privacy agreement means the app will be able to share some personal information with its parent company, Facebook. AFP
WhatsApp's new privacy agreement means the app will be able to share some personal information with its parent company, Facebook. AFP

By February 8, WhatsApp's 2 billion users will have to agree to a controversial new privacy policy if they want to continue using the free instant messaging platform. The policy requires users to agree to WhatsApp sharing personal information with its parent company, Facebook. For now, it appears that neither company will be able to read the encrypted messages sent between users.

Is total online privacy at no cost – be it in terms of user data or money – too good to be true?

Consumer demands for online privacy are justified, but action from private tech companies is not the only condition for such protection. Consumers will also have to start recognising their own responsibility and the power they hold to shape the sector.

Platforms such as WhatsApp have transformed our lives. The app's users can communicate with anyone around the globe, free of charge. The days of racking up costs from text messages are largely behind us. Businesses and customers alike have direct lines to one another, boosting market efficiency. And as technology creeps further and further into our lives, these platforms, for a long time, gave us assurances of privacy. WhatsApp's initial success was owed largely to its secure encryption.

The consumer value of privacy was a reason that the ideals of Silicon Valley in its early days were grounded, at least publicly, in moral philosophy. Google, another tech giant, saved years of human potential by making knowledge accessible in a matter of seconds, speeding up the the rate at which people can access truth, even in the most repressive of circumstances. In its code of conduct, it famously enshrined the phrase "Don't be Evil". It guided the company's mission and gave users the confidence that they were entrusting their data with a responsible enterprise. So many felt betrayed in 2018, when the company conspicuously erased the phrase in its code of conduct and other corporate literature. Were Google users to understand that not being evil was no longer a priority?

Since WhatsApp's new privacy policy was announced, secure messaging app Signal is topping download lists on the Apple Store and Google Play. AFP
Since WhatsApp's new privacy policy was announced, secure messaging app Signal is topping download lists on the Apple Store and Google Play. AFP

Is total online privacy at no cost – be it in terms of user data or money – too good to be true?

Many criticised the organisation for selling out, cashing in on the immense financial value of user data. Other tech companies have since followed suit. Those who buy the data can create highly targeted marketing campaigns. More sinister groups who gain access to it can even go so far as to undermine elections or sow social discord.

The popular fear in response to WhatsApp's latest move stems from a perception that it, too, is shedding principle in favour of profits. But, as scepticism of the priorities of big tech increases, users must accept that the sector is, and always has been, made up of profit-oriented businesses. If privacy is key, perhaps, as some tech analysts have suggested, users should start paying for security-focused platforms, eradicating an app's need to make money through selling data.

Educating people on the commercial nature of the sector will lead to fewer conspiracy theories about its motivations. It will also empower consumers to level better-informed criticisms when the need arises. Much like a public health warning on a cigarette packet, informing an individual of their agency as a consumer will push companies to take user concerns seriously, something they will have to do transparently and in good faith, if they want to ensure their long-term survival.

Updated: January 13, 2021 01:32 PM

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